By Sue Coletta
Rhythm is one of the most underrated aspects of writing, but readers sense the rhythm in our words, whether they realize it or not. Rhythm attracts readers to certain authors.
Life itself has a rhythm.
Whether it’s our heartbeat or the motion of the sun, moon, and planets, we’re embedded within a rhythmic world. Hence why rhythm has such enormous power. It’s built into who we are.
Have you ever lounged on a blanket outside at night, stargazing? Nature is never silent. Even a quiet evening has a melodic undercurrent — a pulse, if you will.
The same holds true in writing.
Rhythm Defines a Mood
Rhythm forces the reader to either rush through the pages, flipping one after another, or nestle in the comfy chair to quietly enjoy the story. Words dance. The writer who pays attention to story rhythm creates sentences that waltz, jerk, tango, stutter, tap dance, float, and sing.
Good writing ebbs and flows by varying sentences, paragraphs, and chapter length and structure.
Notice the atmosphere Hemingway creates in Farewell to Arms.
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.
Rhythm Defines Pace
In music, tone length and dramatic pauses define rhythm. When long notes blend without pauses, the music flows like a swan across still water. On the flipside, short notes with clear pauses draw your attention. The music amps you up.
The same principles apply to writing. Rhythmic writing is defined by punctuation and the stress patterns of words. As a general rule, long sentences are more relaxing, while staccato sentences startle the reader. They draw attention. They force the reader to pay attention.
Tension builds and releases. When a movie reaches its climax, the rhythm increases in pace only to subside as the story resolves. Within the larger rhythmic structure of a story, micro-structures also generate rhythm. Scenes change and plots twist. An interruption in the rhythmic flow transports the reader in a new direction. It knocks them off balance — a gentle slap to ensure they’ll keep flipping pages.
If each sentence follows the same structure and rhythm, the writing becomes boring and predictable. Writers who play with rhythm can create tension in many ways, depending on punctuation and word choice.
In the following example, notice how the intentional repetition of hard -ed verbs create tension in The Killing Song by PJ Parrish
He watched her for the next hour. Watched her playing with the plastic snow globe she had picked up in the souvenir shop. Watched her finish her peach tart, tuck her Fodor’s in her purse and wind the red scarf around her slender white neck.
In the next sentence, the authors slow the pace by varying the sentence structure, adding gerunds, and visceral detail, yet maintain the creepy atmosphere.
In the crowded elevator traveling down from the restaurant in the Eiffel Tower, he stood behind her, closing his eyes as he breathed in the grassy scent of her hair.
In White Fang by Jack London, note where he forces the reader to pause.
A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness.
London also uses repetition but not with a hard -ed verb.
There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness — a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the Sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild.
Does Point-of-View Matter?
Not at all. Using rhythm as a literary device isn’t limited to 1st or 3rd POV, or even past or present tense. Check out the melodic rhythm in Try Darkness by James Scott Bell. The novel is written in 1st POV, but the following excerpt is in 2nd POV to show the protagonist talking to himself.
And then you wonder what makes you go on, what makes you care, because it’s in there somewhere, the caring, even if you don’t know why, even if you don’t know any reason for it. It’s just there and that’s why you don’t sleep.
You look out at the dark, you walk around in it, you think maybe there’ll be a big insight, a sudden realization. And then everything will add up. That’s the hope part, the part the absurdists call a fool’s game.
Are you just a fool like everybody else?
You think of the girl and you think of her being scared and you can’t stand it, and caring becomes torture.
If God was in the room right now you’d scream at him.
That’s what you think about when you can’t sleep.
Next time you read a novel, pay attention to its story rhythm. Where does the author let you pause? How does the author vary long and short sentences? How does the writing ebb and flow? Do you notice a similar rhythm in the writing of your favorite authors?
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